Identity

Can an Asian-American film do well in China?

Dec 10, 2018

On the same weekend that Crazy Rich Asians flunked in the Chinese box office, news broke that Marvel would be “fast-tracking” its first superhero film with an Asian protagonist.

The studio has secured Chinese-American screenwriter David Callum for the project and is looking for an Asian or Asian-American director to helm the production, Deadline Hollywood reports.

The hope is to replicate the success of Black Panther, whose all-black cast and African cultural references resonated with black Americans.

Chadwick Boseman in "Black Panther." Marvel hopes to replicate its success with an Asian superhero film.
Chadwick Boseman in "Black Panther." Marvel hopes to replicate its success with an Asian superhero film. / Photo: Disney/Marvel Studios

The announcement came at the same time that box-office reports showed Crazy Rich Asians made just $1.2 million during its opening weekend in mainland China, coming in eighth after Venom and the Wreck-It Ralph sequel.

Critical reviews of the film on Douban, China’s version of Rotten Tomatoes, suggest viewers couldn’t connect with the film’s exploration of Asian-American themes and found the Cinderella story stale. One reviewer even called it a “white story told with Asian faces.” On Douban, Crazy Rich Asians has a middling score of 6.2 out of 10, while it maintains a 92 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

This disparity raises raise a valid question for diversity-conscious Hollywood producers who want to appeal to audiences in the United States and China, the world’s two biggest film markets, at the same time. Can an Asian-American film succeed in China, where a wealth of domestic films means the promise of greater representation is moot?

Marvel’s prospective film about a Chinese superhero, Shang-Chi, might fare better in China than Crazy Rich Asians. Hollywood action films tend to do well in the mainland because of a dearth in quality domestic action flicks. One could argue that Crazy Rich Asians’ failing in China was due to its genre. There are plenty of romantic comedies in the mainland that better reflect the experience of dating and falling in love in China than Crazy Rich Asians.

Marvel is fast-tracking production of a film about the Chinese superhero Shang-Chi.
Marvel is fast-tracking production of a film about the Chinese superhero Shang-Chi. / Photo: Marvel Comics

Asian-Americans have pointed out that Crazy Rich Asians, a story told from an Asian-American perspective, was never meant to satisfy a Chinese audience. It’s a Hollywood film, after all, made for an American audience. Plus, most of it takes place in Singapore, not China, so where’s the beef?

The points are fair. In a way, the failure of Crazy Rich Asians in mainland China is emblematic of the Asian/Asian-American divide depicted in the film itself. Producers and ardent fans alike want this film to do well in its perceived homeland, but like the character of Rachel Chu, they are sorely let down when they realize the audience is more different than they initially thought.

Constance Wu as Rachel Chu in “Crazy Rich Asians.” As a Chinese-American, Chu faces judgement from her fiancé’s wealthy Singaporean family.
Constance Wu as Rachel Chu in “Crazy Rich Asians.” As a Chinese-American, Chu faces judgement from her fiancé’s wealthy Singaporean family. / Photo: Warner Bros

For all its shortcomings in the box office, Crazy Rich Asians did deliver an Asian-American story to an audience that was largely unfamiliar with it.

“I think the next time you see an Asian-American film in China, they might be more understanding,” says Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociology professor at Biola University who wrote Reel Inequality, an examination of the structural barriers that minorities face in Hollywood. “The more familiar they are with that narrative, the more they’ll appreciate the aspects that maybe they thought at first were foreign ... but later realize are in fact aspects of our real experience.”

“The more familiar they are with that narrative, the more they’ll appreciate the aspects that maybe they thought at first were foreign.”

Crazy Rich Asians might have tanked in mainland China, but it’s provided an opening for future Asian-American productions in the country. On Douban, for every review that derides the film, there is also one that acknowledges the difference of the Asian-American experience and the empathy it will take to understand it.

Marvel’s Shang-Chi film, if it gets distribution in China, promises to add to that understanding, and a sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, has already been green-lit.

Much of the story takes place in Shanghai, where producers are aiming to collaborate with a Chinese production company.